Virginia Makes Every Voter Count

Virginia Makes Every Voter Count

Pablo Delcan

Those who still doubt that their vote can make a difference should take a look at last week’s elections in Virginia.

In House District 94, which includes Newport News, almost 24,000 people went to the polls; the Republican and Democratic candidates there are separated by just 10 votes. The race appears to be headed for a recount, as do those in two other districts where the margin of victory is in the dozens. With control of the Virginia House of Delegates in the balance, literally every vote counts.

That’s particularly exciting in Virginia, where more than 40,000 previously disenfranchised citizens were registered to vote this year, many for the first time.

Virginia was, until recently, one of four states — along with Kentucky, Iowa and Florida — that still impose a lifetime ban on voting by people with felony convictions. The only recourse is a personal reprieve from the governor, which happened last year when Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored the voting rights of more than 168,000 Virginians with criminal records. One quarter of those — about 42,000 people — registered to vote in time for this year’s election.

Bringing so many people back into the electorate, or encouraging them to participate for the first time, is a good thing, period. It’s also yet another reminder of the pointless cruelty of felon disenfranchisement laws, which block more than six million Americans from voting — more than the population of 31 states.

Since African-Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, it’s no surprise that black citizens of voting age are shut out of the polls at four times the rate of nonblacks. Before Governor McAuliffe stepped in, more than one in five black Virginians were barred from voting.

Today’s defenders of felon voting bans would call this a coincidence, but it’s impossible to separate the bans from their racist roots. In Southern states, white political leaders used to make the connection explicit. As one said during Virginia’s constitutional convention in 1902, the intent was to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years, so that in no single county in the commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in government affairs.”

Especially in light of this history, it’s shameful that Republican lawmakers in Virginia fought to stop Mr. McAuliffe, suing him for overstepping his authority after he initially granted a blanket restoration to more than 200,000 Virginians with felony convictions. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed, albeit for dubious reasons, and required the governor to issue any restorations case by case, which he promptly and wisely did.

So why the Republican resistance to what is clearly the right move by Mr. McAuliffe? It’s a mix of self-interested politics and race. People coming out of prison are disproportionately black, and blacks tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. But there’s no clear evidence of a partisan skew in voting by people coming out of prison. And even if there were a demonstrable Democratic bias, that would be no reason to deny someone the right to vote. (It’s worth pointing out that felon disenfranchisement was an issue in the Virginia governor’s race this year, and the candidate who campaigned on the horrors of restoring the vote to “violent felons and sex offenders” lost by 9 points.)

The bottom line is that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue. By an overwhelming majority, Americans of all political stripes support voting by those who have paid their debt to society. In recent years both liberal and conservative states have made it easier to restore the right to vote, on the understanding that disenfranchising people with criminal records serves no purpose other than to keep them at the edges of society. In Virginia, it was a Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, who took the important first steps toward restoring voting rights on a large scale. Maine and Vermont allow people to vote while they are still incarcerated, and no one is contending that this has led either state to collapse into a lawless hellscape.

America has plenty of problems with its electoral system, but too many people voting is not one of them. Whoever wins the contested House races in Virginia, the fact that tens of thousands of new voters were able to participate is a win for everybody.

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